The below are excerpts from an article originally appearing in World Politics Review.
Later this month, Somalia’s eight-year political transition is scheduled to end with the declaration of a “post-transition” government. Casual observers will be forgiven for assuming such a step signals that, after 21 years of complete state collapse, a functional central government in Somalia is now in place.
The reality is that the post-transition government will be unable to project its authority beyond much of the capital, Mogadishu. Most of the country and parts of the capital itself remain under the de facto control of autonomous strongmen, self-proclaimed regional states, clan militias and the jihadi group al-Shabab. Of these, only al-Shabab has demonstrated any will and capacity to impose basic law and order in its areas of control, but the group is losing ground to multiple armed offensives and is focusing its waning energies on war-fighting, not administration.
What this means is that most local communities in Somalia are, or will soon be, on their own when it comes to basic services associated with the state, including security, law and order, market regulation and other basic common goods. For Somalis under the age of 30, which means 73 percent of the total population, informal, local self-governance is about the only political order they have ever known. . . .
The assertion of order involved a hybrid coalition of actors with a shared interest in establishing basic security and rule of law. These other actors included professionals, who guided elders through the new and complex problems that customary law could not address; Muslim clerics, who set up local, clan-based Shariah courts as a complement to customary law; women market-vendors groups and other civic organizations that were able to mobilize populations, reach across conflict lines and shame militiamen; aspiring local politicians, who saw opportunities to advance their own ambitions by supporting local governance; and an emerging business class, which underwrote local Shariah courts and police forces in order to provide for themselves a more conducive commercial environment. Potential spoilers, including armed gangs and militias, were sometimes coopted as deputized local police or protection forces. This was not always possible, but in many instances young gunmen were happy to take up a more respectable, salaried job in a local security unit rather than face the dangers and stigma of operating a militia checkpoint. . . .
The capacity of Somalia’s local polities in the post-1995 period also varied significantly. Some were little more than protection rackets, providing basic security for a fee. Others provided more-robust rule of law and dispute mediation — typically parties to a dispute were afforded the choice of customary or Shariah law, so the two were not seen as rival systems. Almost everywhere, clan elders were relied upon to manage endemic land disputes and provide a critical role as witnesses to property sales, acting as a guarantor that deeds were legitimate. This was a very important role for the emerging private sector. In a few places, informal governance systems pushed beyond security and rule of law into more advanced governance roles. In several towns, committees of clan elders regulated the allocation of all contracts, employment and rentals that international aid agencies introduced into the area, as a means of ensuring proportional allocation by clan and preventing conflict over resources. Many towns organized fund-raising and volunteer labor in order to provide a public good that, due to its cost, constituted a “collective action” problem, such as a damaged road or bridge. In other locations, committees of clan elders served as regulatory bodies to determine, for instance, the fair price of electricity sold by a local business group that operated a generator and ran lines to customers’ homes. . . .
In a number of towns, these governance arrangements were formalized into municipalities, some of which constituted the most effective and impressive form of administration in the country. Mayors had the advantage of presiding over a political unit that, unlike informal governance, was recognizable to international donors and so could tap modest amounts of foreign assistance to help underwrite delivery of services like road repair, water systems and urban planning. Towns also tended to be sites of residence and business for multiple clans, offering greater opportunities for functional collaboration on matters of shared interest.
In a few cases, local governance in the 1995-2006 period grew to an even larger scale, in the form of regional state administrations. The biggest and most successful of these, Somaliland, is a secessionist state with a fully developed government, parliament, court system and security sector operating on a modest annual budget of about $35 million. In the northeast of the country, the nonsecessionist state of Puntland emerged in the late-1990s. Like Somaliland, it benefits from customs revenues on an active seaport and has established a modestly effective formal administration and police force.
These local governance arrangements are quite complex, in a constant state of flux and hence very challenging for Somalis to navigate. Working effectively in this environment, whether as a businessperson, elder, politician or civil leader, requires a level of political acumen that outsiders often fail to appreciate. . . .
In both of the most successful regional states, secessionist Somaliland and autonomous Puntland, traditional authorities — that is, clan elders — have been formally incorporated into government deliberations. The TFG has done the same, employing clan elders as representatives in a national constituent assembly that was tasked with selecting a new parliament and approving a provisional constitution. The most interesting example of “hybrid governance” — incorporating traditional authorities in formal government — has occurred in Somaliland, where elders’ roles are enshrined in an upper house, or “guurti,” of a bicameral parliament. This was done in part to build popular trust and confidence in the nascent government and in part to influence and coopt the clan elders. It is this latter dynamic that worries some critics of hybrid governance, who see in it a real danger of manipulation of traditional authorities, leading to a decline in their legitimacy. . . .
Somalia’s post-transition government is likely to be very weak for some time to come, and its only means of extending its authority will be to do what it has already done: negotiate relations with nonstate and substate entities in areas beyond its control. This is the so-called mediated state model, in which a central government that “has the competence to know the limits of its competence” allows local authorities to mediate relations between the state and its citizens, and outsources to the private sector, nonprofits and local polities many functions normally associated with a central government. The TFG’s reluctant relations with subnational polities Puntland and Galmaduug, for instance, are vintage examples of a mediated state, as are its tense relations with powerful local politicians in Mogadishu, who are at once members of parliament and warlords preventing the TFG police from entering their neighborhoods. Such a path toward state-building is messy, fluid, conflictual and not at all amenable to most state-building aid programs. But it is a much more realistic model of how weak states seek to claim, and gradually build, authority over their territory.
For the full article, see World Politics Review.
Dr. Ken Menkhaus is professor of political science at Davidson College. He has authored more than 50 articles and book chapters on Somalia and the Horn of Africa. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute.